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PREVIEW-After Sri Lanka’s war, victors vie for presidency

[Reuters, Sunday, 24 January 2010 12:00 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s first post-war presidential election due on Tuesday has turned into a violent contest between two former allies who led the nation to victory over the Tamil Tigers but who are now bitter political foes.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa is facing an unexpectedly strong challenge from General Sarath Fonseka, who as army commander led a relentless campaign to crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) three-decade separatist insurgency.

On Tuesday, polls open for an election in which nearly 14.1 million people are registered to vote. More than 68,000 police will be deployed to protect polling stations and there are fears voting day could be bloody.

There is little difference between the Rajapaksa and Fonseka campaign platforms, both of which are heavy on populist subsidies, pledges of pay raises to Sri Lanka’s bloated public sector and promises of rural development.

Fonseka has said he would abolish the executive presidency to restore some kind of balance of power, but few including the political parties behind him expect that to happen.

Both men have accused the other of corruption, and Fonseka says essential food prices have risen sharply under Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa in turn points to record low inflation, and improving economic growth since the end of the war.

ACTS OF VIOLENCE

Campaigning so far has been beset by more than 800 reported acts of violence and there have been at least four deaths.

There are only a handful of independent international election monitors. Fonseka has said he is confident of victory, but accused the government of scheming to steal it from him.

"There is a rigging campaign going on but I appeal to you not to allow that. Protect your future. Don’t allow them to decide the future of your country," he told supporters.

Rajapaksa’s campaign denies planning any voter fraud, and says it will not need to do so to secure a win.

"We are confident and according to polls we can win with over 65 percent," said Susil Premajayantha, general secretary of Rajapaksa’s United Peoples Freedom Alliance. "We have pledged our support and cooperation to conduct free and fair elections."

Both men stood together at the historic declaration of victory over the LTTE in May, winners of one of Asia’s longest-running wars. But in the months since, Fonseka split with Rajapaksa over what he said was a promotion meant to sideline him and false allegations of a coup plot.

Both men can legitimately lay claim to the victory, which led Rajapaksa to call an election two years before his first six-year term expired in the hope his massive post-war popularity would secure him a second one.

But the entry of Fonseka, a political novice with the backing of a coalition of political parties whose sole unifying factor is a desire to see Rajapaksa lose, rapidly changed the equation.

Although there are no credible opinion polls on the island, the consensus is that both men are neck-in-neck with equal support among the Sinhalese ethnic majority which makes up 75 percent of the Indian Ocean island nation’s 21 million people.

That makes Sri Lanka’s minorities, who make up the remaining quarter of voters, the crucial swing vote.

The largest group is the Tamils, with about 12 percent. Neither candidate has sizeable Tamil support because of the war, but the LTTE’s political proxy, the Tamil National Alliance, has backed Fonseka. It is unclear how many Tamils will vote.

The other sizeable minority vote blocs are Muslims, with about 7 percent, and 5 percent from the so-called Estate Tamils, descendants of Indian Tamils brought to work on tea estates under British colonial rule.

Western diplomats are equivocal about which candidate they prefer, saying that neither’s platform differs much and that both could be implicated in potential war crimes inquiries focusing on the thousands of civilians killed in the war’s final months.

[Full Coverage]

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